A taste of old New York...

Here and there, in Ladies Aid Society cookbooks, and websites promising "Heirloom Treats from Grandma's Kitchen", you'll find a lot of recipes for Delmonico Potatoes. What distinguishes them is their hetrogenety, with cheddar, or American, or sometimes Velveeta cheese gumming together a casserole made with white (or cream) sauce, and topped with bread crumbs, rice, cracker meal or corn flakes. Sometimes, this dish will have hard boiled eggs in it, sour cream, pimentoes, onions, mustard, garlic, or parsley. One entry, from the old Usenet Cookbook avows that this THE secret recipe, handed down since the 1880's from "Ranhofer, of the Delmonico's Hotel", but that this can't be proven, since it's not in Ranhofer's cookbook. (He didn't work at the hotel either.) Unfortunately, it's a hoax, albeit an unconscious one.

The first reference ever to Delmonico potatoes comes from, of all places, Delmonico's Restaurant, where Pommes de terre a la maitre d'hotel ("Fricasseed potatoes") are listed on the menu in 1838. Since this translates in the modern vernacular as something like Our Own Shredded Potatoes in Special Sauce, this is not particularly helpful. However, Delmonico's chef Alessandro Filippini, whose tenure in the kitchen predates Ranhofer's (in 1862) by a good ten years or more, included a "Delmonico's Potatoes" in his cookbook (which see below).

How could it be that there are so many different recipes for the same thing? Some people claim that it was only Delmonico's name, being so famous, that spurred imitators in larger towns. I have a more romantic thought....

Sweet River is a small Western town. Trains come through every day or so, bearing mail and passengers, though most often it's freight, timber from the north, cattle and some minerals. It's basically just a jerkwater, a place where steam engines rewatered, a process that could take anything from a few minutes to several hours, but with big dreams of being something better. Hence, passengers going further West often stepped off the train to walk through the town, which supported a vaudeville house and a 'Grand Hotel', notable for having a restaurant.

One day, a tall, portly stranger came into town -- Mr. Grandison, a land speculator, who saw Sweet River as a potential goldmine. He was from New York, and had been regaling passengers with tales of the big city in the train. "It's a whole different world there...Fifth Avenue is simply lined with palaces." Quite naturally, he was conversant with the Vanderbilts, the Astors ("though not in the same room"), and the Fishes, and often had had dinner with them. His tales of Worth gowns and lavish parties charmed the ladies, and he wasted no time in gaining the confidence of the mayor, the schoolteacher, and a few local clergymen, even giving a talk on temperance to a youth group. He had a plan to turn Sweet River into a transportation hub...but he needed a few local backers. Assembling some of the local bigwigs for an evening of fine dining, "man talk" and...he winked, perhaps a little something extra, they assembled at the Sweetwater Hotel.

"Oh, nothing." he says, airily perusing the Bill of Fare. "Just a simple steak and potatoes the way Ranhofer made for me at Delmonico's."

What better way to prove that he was who he said he was, a man of breeding and taste, confidante to the high and the mighty? Delmonico's is nothing short of the most famous restaurant in America, the jewel in the crown of the Republic, and proof positive that the United States had arrived on the world stage. Of course he would have eaten there, and was quite likely to have been a regular.

The cook is nonplussed. Well, he can broil a steak, though which cut the fellow is asking for is unclear. As for the potatoes, he's heard (vaguely) that it's some kind of casserole or au gratin, and that the exact recipe is a closely-kept secret of Delmonico's restaurant...or is it a hotel? But he can't afford not to know, since he's always been thought of as being a "trained chef" -- it's not his fault that most people would rather have Irish stew and hash! -- who of course would have knowlege of such a recipe. Well, he's got potatoes...and he can make a white sauce...and there's some soda biscuits that could make breadcrumbs, and some mild store cheese.

About an hour later, Mr. Grandison is served what we would now call a rib-eye steak and a dish of potatoes, with yellow cheese dripping out like lava and a crispy crumb topping, served by the cook himself. Grandison tastes, smiles...and beams. "This is exactly right!"

The cook is offered a drink, the company roars its approval, and everyone tucks into what they believe to be a real taste of luxury. With everyone stuffed and well-oiled, Mr. Grandison gets a lavish sum for his proposal. Next week, Grandison has skipped town, but the cook is overjoyed. He's reverse-engineered Delmonico's specialty! The resulting recipe becomes a house favorite, and is copied freely by local housewives, aiming to inject a little glamor into Thanksgiving dinner.

Meanwhile, a few towns down the train line, Mr. Grandison is sitting down to a strip steak with a dish of potatoes, rice and sharp Cheddar in Hollandaise sauce..."It must be a miracle to get the true Delmonico's potatoes here...It's exactly right."

Real Delmonico potatoes are a triumph of umami and cream, surprisingly light, with a delicate ricelike texture. They should need nothing, not butter, salt or pepper to make them utterly delicious. Incredibly, they're listed as a breakfast dish in The International Cookbook, adding that they're a good side dish for steaks, chops, and roasts of all kinds. I'd go so far as to serve them with mushrooms as a luncheon dish.

718. DELMONICO POTATOES (Filippini's recipe, gently edited, with some modern interpolations...)

Parboil four washed, quartered, and unpeeled potatoes until just undercooked.
(I add a chicken boullion cube to the water as well.)
Shred coarsely with a grater (or food processor).
Place in a frying pan (nonstick is best) with
3/4 cup cold milk
1/4 c. cream
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. white pepper
1/4 t. grated nutmeg
folded in gently (you want a ricelike texture, not mashed)
and saute on medium-heat, gently stirring occasionally for ten minutes.
Then add
1 T. grated Parmesan cheese (get good Parm here, not Kraft)
gently fold in again. You can make everything ahead up to here.

Transfer the potatoes into a buttered shallow casserole dish, sprinkle
another light tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
over and set in a hot oven to bake for six minutes, or until they're a nice golden brown
remove and serve immediately. Serves four (if you stretch it).

Just for fun, here's the steak, the only steak recipe identified as "Delmonico's" in the book:

812. DELMONICO'S STEAKS, BORDELAISE
Nicely trim and lightly flatten with a cleaver two tender sirloin steaks of one and a quarter pounds each. Mix on a plate one teaspoon salt, half teaspoon white pepper, with a tablespoon oil and gently roll the steaks in the seasoning; arrange on the broiler and broil on a brisk fire for eight minutes on each side. Remove and dress on a hot dish. Pour hot Bordelaise sauce, prepared as per No. 28, over and serve.

28. BORDELAISE SAUCE

Finely chop six small, very sound, peeled shallots and place them in a small saucepan with 1/2 cup red wine, and let reduce on the fire to half the quantity. Then pour one quarter cup warmed tomato sauce and one half cup warmed demi-glace. Season with a 1/4 t. salt and a very little cayenne pepper and let boil very slowly for eight minutes. Shift the pan on the corner of the range, then add, little by little, half an ounce good butter, and continue mixing until the butter is thoroughly dissolved.

Yes, I know this may not be the Delmonico's steak or potatoes you remember as a kid. If this disappoints anyone, I am very sad for you.

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